A Brief History
On September 27, 1944, the American bombing command in Europe, the US Army Air Forces’ 8th Air Force, conducted its Kassel Mission, a horrendous raid that resulted in the worst losses for any US bomb group in World War II, a tale we told back in 2013. The 445th Bombardment Group, consisting of 39 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers had become separated from the main bombing force, and to make matters worse, also lost their fighter escort. Although the big bombers suffered terribly, they managed to shoot down about 29 German fighters, a remarkable defensive performance by the heavily armed bombers. The B-24 never got the great publicity of the better known Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, although more B-24’s served during the war. An underappreciated aircraft, today we discuss the 6 most under-rated planes of World War II. (Honorable mention: Grumman F4F Wildcat.)
1. Consolidated B-24 Liberator, heavy bomber.
Living in the shadow of its older brother, the Boeing B-17, the B-24 and its aircrews cannot be blamed if they feel underappreciated. The most produced American bomber and in fact most produced American warplane of any type, the US pumped out a massive 18,000+ of the big 4 engine birds, compared to “only” 12,731 B-17’s. While the B-17 was reportedly easier to fly and had a slightly higher ceiling, the B-24 was a tad faster, especially cruising speed (215 mph vs. 182 mph for the Boeing) and could fly farther, making it the go to plane for long, over-water patrols. Both planes carried similar armament and bomb loads, but it is incredible how much more you hear, see and read about the B-17 than the B-24 that actually had 50% more planes built! Liberators were adapted into redesigned aircraft to serve as transports and naval patrol variations.
2. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, fighter.
Previously, we referred to the P-40 as the “P-40 Warhawk, The Most Underrated US Fighter Plane.” Often described as obsolete at the start of World War II, the main fault of the P-40 was its lack of high altitude performance, a trait it shared with the P-39. American war planners did not believe dogfights would be taking place at high altitude, and did not make such performance a priority. Compared to the Japanese Zero that the P-40 first faced off against, the P-40 was just as fast and could dive faster, as well as out turn a Zero at high speed. The trick with the P-40 when fighting a Zero was to keep your speed up. The 6 X .50 caliber machine guns of the P-40 were an excellent armament suite, also effective in attacking ground and naval targets as well as in aerial combat. As higher performance US fighters made the scene, the P-40 was usually reassigned as a fighter bomber, a role it performed rather well. In the European theater, the P-40 matched the early versions of the Bf-109 and Fw-190 flown by the Germans, as long as the altitude was about 16,000 feet or less. As with the P-39, the Soviets used the P-40 to great effect on the Eastern Front, where the rugged nature of the Warhawk and its ability to carry bombloads of 500 to 2000 pounds made it a valuable fighter-bomber. As is often the case, the number of planes produced is an indication of how important a particular airplane was, and in the case of the P-40, the US built a whopping 13,738 of these rugged warbirds, more than any other American fighter of all time except the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt.
3. Hawker Hurricane, fighter.
Forget about the Spitfire! The plane that really won the Battle of Britain was the Hawker Hurricane, a more dated design than the Spitfire but one that used the same engine and was easier to build. We discussed the lack of appreciation for this fine fighter in our article, “The Hawker Huricane: The Most Underrated Fighter Plane of World War II.” Nearly 15,000 of these nifty fighters were built, and they accounted for 60% of the German planes shot down during the Battle of Britain. The Hurricane could actually out turn both the Spitfire and the Bf-109, a fact often overlooked in the discussion of World War II fighters. When improvements in the Hurricane could not keep up with other fighter development, its armament suite of 8 X .303 caliber machine guns was increased to either 12 X .303 caliber machine guns or 4 X 20mm cannons, making the Hurricane a devastating bomber killer and ground attack fighter-bomber. As with other aging fighters, the Hurricane’s role was slowly changed to largely that of fighter-bomber, and it served well in that role. Updated developments based on the original Hurricane became the Typhoon and Tempest, some of the highest performing fighters of World War II.
4. Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar, fighter.
Not only was this land based Japanese Army fighter plane eclipsed by the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Allied fliers often just called the Oscar “Zero” when they encountered it, as if “Zero” was generic for “Japanese fighter plane!” Japanese war production could never match American or European numbers, but the Japanese managed to produce nearly 6000 of these nimble lightweight fighters. (Compared to nearly 11,000 Zeros.) As Japan was primarily a naval power as an island nation, its navy took precedence over its land forces. Weighing only 4200 pounds empty, compared to nearly 6000 pounds for the American P-40, the Oscar, technically named the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar is an American name for it), was capable of 330 mph, which was competitive at the start of World War II. Like most Japanese aircraft, the Oscar was wonderfully maneuverable. The Oscar was introduced to active duty in October of 1941, just in time for war with the US and Britain. Usually armed with just 2 X 7.7mm or 12.7mm machine guns, the latest version was given a 20mm cannon to increase its firepower. Although the Oscar was clearly outclassed by the new introduction of American and British fighter planes during World War II, it was the second most produced Japanese fighter plane (actually, second most produced Japanese warplane, period) of World War II and played an important role in the Japanese war effort. Later production included increased armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a more powerful engine.
5. Vickers Wellington, medium bomber.
We previously discussed the Wellington in our article, “What Was the Most Produced British Bomber of World War II?” in which we reported that the Wellington was made in huge numbers, over 11,400 of the twin engine bombers which is 4000 more copies than the Avro Lancaster bomber that seems to get all the good press and attention. In fact, the Wellington is the most produced British bomber of all time. Though air forces around the world quickly found out that daytime bombers were in dire need of fighter escorts and could not effectively bomb on their own, the RAF made the intelligent choice to use the Wellington at night, where it became a highly effective medium bomber, as well as a daytime interdiction bomber/attack aircraft. Do not let its nickname, the Wimpy, fool you! Its odd geodesic construction with a fabric skin proved to be remarkably resilient to damage, and if there is one thing aviators appreciate, it is an airplane that brings them home alive!
6. Bell P-39 Airacobra, fighter.
Another World War II veteran we have previously discussed, the sleek P-39 made its mark more as a Lend-Lease contribution to the Soviet war effort rather than as a plane used by American pilots. Of course, the US did use the P-39, as did the Royal Air Force, and its performance was not that much different than the early Axis planes its fought against. Where it lacked was in high altitude performance, and this fault did not matter as much on the Eastern Front where air battles tended to be at low and medium altitude. Almost 10,000 of these fighters were built, and its top speed of 389 mph was much better than early Japanese fighters and on par with early German fighters. The armament of the P-39 was also pretty good, boasting 4 X .50 caliber machine guns supplemented by a 37mm auto-cannon firing high explosive shells. Often mistakenly assumed to be a ground attack asset because of the large cannon, the US never supplied the USSR with armor piercing cannon rounds, and the Soviets used the P-39 mostly in the air to air role. To enhance aerial maneuverability, the Soviets often removed the 2 wing mounted .50 caliber machine guns, with the remaining 2 machine guns and cannon more than adequate to shoot down enemy planes. The P-39 was the basis for the later development of the P-63 Kingcobra (3303 built), a 410 mph fighter also mostly delivered to the Soviets. Oh, and the P-39 performed just fine as a ground attack plane as well. A P-39 flown by a Russian ace downed 60 German planes, the highest score by any single US built fighter plane, ever.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which of the planes in this list is your favorite and why? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Chant, Christopher. Aircraft of World War II. Barnes & Noble, 1999.
Eden, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Aircraft of WWII. Amber Books, 2006.
Jackson, Robert. Warplanes of World War II: Fighters*Bombers*Ground Attack Aircraft. Sterling Children’s Books, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of B-24s of the 445th Bombardment Group, based at RAF Tibenham, England, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.